Thirty Years On

Yeah, I’m pretty sure y’all saw this coming some time ago.  My unhealthy obsession with the music of 1988 deems it necessary that I do the occasional thirty-years-on post this year.  But hey!  This time I’ll focus only on the music and spare you the personal stories you’ve heard enough times already.  This’ll be like my Blogging the Beatles posts from a few years back, taking my favorite music from my favorite year specifically from a listener’s point of view.  I don’t have any set schedule or plan for this series , so it’ll most likely be sporadic, depending on the release dates and so on.

I decided to use the classic Guns n’ Roses “Welcome to the Jungle” (or as my friend Chris once call it back then, “Welcome to my Uncle’s”) as my header video for this introduction for a few reasons.  Even though the track had been released back in July of 1987, it was still getting heavy airplay alongside their other classic single “Sweet Child o’ Mine”.  Originally I was not a GnR fan at all, lumping them in with all the other hair metal bands of the day.  But on the same token, they were essentially the hardest-sounding band out there at the time.  A quick look at the early January pop charts and you’ll notice that pop music was leaning perilously towards the ‘lite’ side.  It was refreshingly inclusive and included multiple genres and performers, sure, but you’ve got to admit that there wasn’t much of a spine to many of those songs.  GnR was the much-needed exception to that rule.

It was time to look a bit deeper into the independents if I was going to satiate my need for exciting music.

Meanwhile, 1985

Personal:  Eighth grade into ninth grade, going from Junior High to High School.  A long-awaited, much-needed change of pace, setting, and mood.  After nearly fucking up my educational track by getting an F — in English, of all things, thanks to boredom, inattention and distraction — I get my shit together and become a middling student for the rest of my school years. Not nearly as inept socially as I was in junior high; I embrace the fact that I’m a nerd and a weirdo.

Writing:  Headlong into the Infamous War Novel project.  Still finding my way through it, with multiple false starts, outtakes, and notebooks.  Somewhere along the line I come up with the brilliant idea of creating an outline via a set list of music, and it all starts coming together.  Eventually I’ll start a draft that will take me about two years to finish, in between music listening, homework and social life.  A few unrelated snippets written at this time that don’t really go anywhere.

Music:  Listening to a lot of Top 40 countdowns on the weekends while listening to rock radio during the week.  Music collection still small but expanding thanks to used record stores and trips to the mall.  Creating mixtapes from stuff off the radio in high gear now.  I start cataloging these mixtapes on a steno pad.  [Decades later I use this same list to recreate the mixtapes on mp3.]  Probably one of my favorite eras of pop music in the 80s…a lot of really great stuff came out between 1985 and 1986.

Favorite Albums: Synchronicity

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I’ve been hearing a few Police songs on Sirius 1st Wave lately, and it got me thinking: I haven’t listened to their last album Synchronicity in a LONG time. It occurred to me that this was one of the early non-Beatles albums that I connected with from start to finish in the early 80s. [I’d say Rush’s Moving Pictures and Thomas Dolby’s The Golden Age of Wireless are two others from this era…I’d listened to full albums all the time, but very few of them contained a full album’s worth of tracks I completely loved.  That would change within a year or so.]

I remember Synchronicity coming out as there was an amazingly detailed push by the label, A&M, on MTV, including multiple versions of the album cover, as well as a four-minute long teaser that was played on the music channel:

Having become a somewhat passive fan of the band on the previous album (1981’s Ghost in the Machine and the many hits that got airplay on rock radio, I loved what I was hearing. And when it was released in June of 1983, one of my sisters bought it and I damn near wore it out playing it. I’d dubbed a copy of it for my own listening until I finally found a used vinyl copy a year or so later.

Of course everyone knows the lead-off single, “Every Breath You Take”, which still gets an amazing amount of airplay over thirty years later. I was more a fan of its b-side, “Murder By Numbers”, which was treated as a bonus track on the cassette and CD. I was also a fan of the second single, “Wrapped Around Your Finger”. It’s not often you hear a song that uses the phrase “trapped between the Scylla and Charibdys”. Nerdy stuff indeed.

But what I found myself really enjoying was the strange mix of album cuts, from the jazzy “Miss Gradenko”…

to the new wave weirdness of “Mother”…

…to the jittery opener “Synchronicity I”.

I was only twelve when it came out, but budding writer in me really liked the idea that the album was all about different kinds of philosophies, both religious and profane, and how often they were linked in one way or another. Sting’s uber-intellectual lyrics were tempered by some brilliant melodies that seemed to transcend anything they’d recorded before.

Of course, it was also their last album together before they broke up (acrimoniously due to clashing egos, of course), so they certainly went out with a bang. Each member went on to vastly different solo careers and though they’ve reconvened a few times for one reason or another, they’ve never released anything new since.

Out of all the Police albums I listen to, Synchronicity gets the most plays by far.  It’s the tightest, the wildest, and the most interesting in my opinion.  The others tend to have weak spots that lose my attention, but this one I’ll still listen to from start to finish.

 

One Epic Release Day, 30 Years Ago

It’s not often that we put importance on an album release date.  When it is, it’s usually for a single album that’s considered a historical artifact, like 2 June 1967 with Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Heart’s Club Band, or 9 March 1987 with U2’s The Joshua Tree.

But on 28/29 September 1987, we were treated with not one but four excellent albums that many consider a vital part of the 80s alternative rock movement.

First, we had a newbie:  Pixies’ debut EP on 4AD, Come On Pilgrim.

We all know the story behind the band by now…two UMass Amherst students (Frank Black and Joey Santiago) start up a noisy band and move to Boston; a smartass ad in the local paper pulls in exactly one audition, one Kim Deal; a friend of a friend, David Lovering, is chosen as drummer. Their off-kilter mix of punk, surf, folk and who knows what else is both frightening and intriguing. Ivo Watts-Russell is convinced signing them to his label is a bizarre move, and yet…

I remember hearing “Vamos” on WAMH probably around the same time their “Gigantic” single had come out (about six months after this EP) and thinking, what the hell is this…? By that time I was more into moody college rock, but this was something so leftfield yet so fascinating that I had to follow up. Of course, they were a local band by my standards, so I definitely had to check them out.

Next, we had a band on its way up, not quite there yet but already given a huge following: The Red Hot Chili Peppers, with their third album The Uplift Mofo Party Plan.

They’d been around since 1984 with the delightfully weird but funky first album, but their follow-up, 1985’s Freaky Styley, was a bit too weird for a lot of people. This third album was a return to their rock-funk sound and became a favorite. Tragically, their guitarist Hillel Slovak would die of a heroin overdose after this album’s tour. His death would deeply affect the rest of the band, especially singer Anthony Keidis, and their next album, Mothers Milk, would reflect that darker edge. Still…that album would clear their way even more (especially with their fantastic cover of Stevie Wonder’s “Higher Ground”), and a few years after that their popularity would peak with 1991’s Blood Sugar Sex Magik.

 

Next, we had a band that had already reached significant heights with their distinctive sampling and synth-heavy sound, combined with curious lyrics (often about sex, emotional pain, and the darker side of love) and fascinating melodies. Depeche Mode had no way to go but up. Their album Music for the Masses would take their sound even further than before: louder, brasher, stronger.

“Never Let Me Down”, was the second single, released a month before the album (the first single, “Strangelove”, dropped a full five months previous, the usual habit for DM releases), and its in-your-face volume intrigued many fans. The rest of the album delivered just as much punch, to the delight of many, even as its lyrics seemed to be darker and more personal than ever. A little over two years later they’d return with their absolute best album, Violator.

 

And lastly, a band on its way out. It’s the story of too many bands; two front men with strong egos and opinions, writing absolutely stunning, gorgeously played music and proudly singing heart-on-sleeve lyrics that say exactly how you feel, splitting up in the most acrimonious way possible. The Smiths’ Strangeways, Here We Come was their last gasp, their Abbey Road, containing some of the strongest songs they’d written…and by the time it hit the shops, the band was already in the past tense.

The Smiths was the band for the wallflower, the weirdo, the proud outcast.  Morrissey’s poetic missives perfectly balanced Johnny Marr’s amazing guitar work, and in the short four-plus years they’d been together, they’d given teenagers a hell of a strong and massive soundtrack to their lives.  Though their work on Strangeways had been enjoyable, just like always, the clashing of egos caused the band to fall apart.  Both Morrissey and Marr have moved on from it all, now playing Smiths songs in their live sets, have even talked with one another over the years, but life has gone on.

*

Of course, there were other album releases that day — Yes’ Big Generator, Wet Wet Wet’s Popped In Souled Out, The Art of Noise’s In No Sense? Nonsense!, and Boston locals O-Positive with their Cloud Factory EP, for starters — but those four albums had to be the most important.  They were by four bands either on their way up or their way down, all four bands that could be considered integral to the growing alternative rock scene of the time.

WIS: Unexpected inspiration

The other day while reading Martin Aston’s book about the 4AD label, I came across a single sentence:

By 1985, American college radio had gathered momentum alongside the spurt in independent record labels, with the likes of [Clan of Xymox’s] “A Day” striking radio programmers as adventurous and commercial, and a modern, gleaming alternative to the guitar-centric homegrown scene spearheaded by bands such as REM, Sonic Youth and Hüsker Dü.

To be honest, I hadn’t been thinking of my Walk in Silence project lately, partly because I’d put it aside some time ago.  I didn’t trunk it, I just put it aside so I could focus on the Trilogy Edit and newer fiction.  I’d also gone through my projected timeline last summer on a personal level, if only to purge it from my writing brain for a while.

That personal version really wasn’t the original idea that I’d had.  I was thinking more along the lines of a chronological book about college rock.  The releases bracketing the story would be The Smiths’ third single, “What Difference Does It Make” (January 1984) and Nine Inch Nails’ Pretty Hate Machine (October 1989).

I could never quite figure out a way to solidify my idea that that was the golden era of college rock, before it became much more mainstream in 1991 with Nirvana and everyone else.  Until that one sentence.  It made sense to me, though…1984-85 was about the time that a lot of independent distributors and labels in the US, such as Relativity and Caroline, started licensing British bands that had only been available on expensive imports.  [Only Sire had any sizeable share in that field as a major label, having signed the Smiths, Depeche Mode, and others.]

So it occurs to me that perhaps it’s time for me to resurrect the Walk in Silence project as it was originally intended, focusing on the sounds of college rock in the mid to late 80s.  Maybe without so much of the personal added to it this time out.

Of course, I already have a few writing projects on tap as it is, so I’ll have to figure out how the hell to fit this in.  Heh.